Austin Wideman

Your Rewards

by Joyce Hodgson Post

Volunteers freely give up their time and labor for the greater good of their community and are the backbone of many organizations, including The Salvation Army.

My father once said to me with all seriousness, “Never volunteer.” He was, of course, only kidding since he was a minister and relied heavily on volunteers of all sorts to support the church and its many programs. His kidding aside, it’s easy to make excuses for not volunteering, even for causes, events, or activities that you really love or want to support. “Life is busy,” “work is overwhelm­ing,” “school is distracting,” “my kids run me ragged,” “I already volunteer,” the list goes on.

But, frankly, without volunteers to step forward, the world would simply not revolve.

It is the volunteer backbone of nonprofit organizations that provides food for the hungry, clothes for the needy, shelter, educa­tion, training, support, advocacy, and again, the list goes on. Even large corporations and academic institutions encourage volunteer­ ism to provide team–building opportunities for their employees and students and establish camaraderie in the community. High school students are encouraged to give many hours of community service before they graduate.

When Jesus reached out to the disciples, he didn’t offer an oppor­tunity for a job interview. He knew these men well and knew their strengths and weaknesses. He needed volunteers to preach the gospel and do good works. They were, indeed, volunteers. Their reward came in Heaven, as we often hear, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” Thus comes the crux of the conver­sation—reward. Volunteers don’t receive compensation for their time and talents, although the IRS allows for volunteers to deduct mileage accrued in service. Verbal acknowledgement, a pat on the back, a plaque every five years, a luncheon in your honor—that’s the kind of thing that volun­teers receive and most understand this to be the case. With that in mind, it also means volunteers can easily walk away from the critical responsibilities often given to them.

I have been responsible for volunteer recruitment, training, and retention for several nonprofit organizations: social service agencies, arts organizations, health–focused programs, all well–grounded, longtime serv­ing centers of activity that had many more volunteers than paid staff. But sometimes well–meaning, ready volunteers receive hours of training and support and often sit and wait for a disaster to occur to use that training. If it doesn’t happen, they might decide to give their time to other needy groups.

Staying engaged

Finding ways to keep people engaged is a challenge, and helping people recognize their talents and abilities is so very import­ant to creating an effective cadre of volun­teers. Some volunteers know which program they want to serve right away; others take some time and start with simple tasks as a good way of gaining confidence and prepar­ing themselves for future opportunities.

The Salvation Army’s Christmas Kettle campaign is one of the most visible volun­teer efforts and greatly needed to support the vast fundraising necessary to accomplish the organization’s wide variety of services. With a seasonal volunteer oppor­tunity in mind, civic organizations, scout­ing groups, business employees, and church members can be recruited to stand at the kettle in various locations and ring the bell for the local Army.

While a good deal of training isn’t needed, it does require people who will stand when it’s cold and be responsible for a kettle. My favorite memories are of days when I would stand at a kettle and hear the stories from World War II veterans who would tell me how The Salvation Army provided a shaving kit to them when they left for deployment, or that their father told them stories of the Salvation Army’s “Donut Girls” of World War I, who fed the troops on the front line in France.

How, then, do organizational staff find volunteers who will stay the course and be there in the “hour of need”? Emergency Disaster Services (EDS), a critical program of The Salvation Army, provides intense training to EDS volunteers who are called in the middle of the night to serve coffee from a food truck to firefighters or jump on a plane to get to a site where a tornado just devastated a community. These volunteers must know more than how to help victims with paperwork—they must understand the protocol of working with other nonprofits, how to procure supplies, how to be thera­pists on occasion and babysitters where needed. Volunteers must also support the Army’s Christian mission and often are led to spend time in prayer with victims of many different kinds of disasters.

Toys for hard times

Jack, a wonderful, retired gentleman, had served in the military as a young man and his family was supported by the Army during a difficult time. “I’ll never forget the toys my children received from The Salvation Army,” Jack says. “It was a hard time, financially, for my wife and me, and their help with food and toys were a Godsend. Now that I have time, I’m happy to help out at the local Army center. I ring the kettle bell at Christmastime and drive the children out to the camp in the summer. It’s fun and rewarding!”

There’s so much to do and there are so many people who want to help. The joy of helping others is the reward, knowing that someone will have a place to sleep, food to eat, and comfort for their families. This is the compensation.

Volunteerism, way back when

The Salvation Army began as a religious ministry in England in 1865, and its initial congregants were the people of the street, alcoholics, prostitutes, and the needy. Services to those same people continue in 2023 with so many lifelines, many of which are now provided by trained staff members who hold degrees, but who also need many volunteer hands to give holistic services to these individuals.

In the early days of the Army in the United States, volunteers were the means of delivering the services of the organiza­tion into cities and towns wherever disas­ter struck. In 1900, when a hurricane struck Galveston, Texas, destroying the town and killing more than 5,000 people, the leader of the Army at that time, Frederick Booth–Tucker, brought people from across the country to help shelter and feed thousands of survivors. The same held true for the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

Can you imagine the effort to get people and supplies to these areas, long before planes, computers, ready–to–eat meals, rubber gloves, and face masks? There weren’t cellphones to keep in constant contact, no franchise hotels to house the volunteers, no simple clothing to toss in the washer at the end of a long, grimy day cleaning up debris or scrubbing the floors of flooded houses.

Over the years, The Salvation Army has modified its programming to reflect social service needs, not only in the United States but around the world as it serves people in 133 countries.

Never simple, but the provision of clothes, food, and shelter can be accomplished in any Salvation Army center in any city. Volunteers can be stationed at the red kettle during the Christmas season to help with fundraising. Business leaders serve on advisory boards to support the needs of their community. Retired educators can give guidance to young people who attend after–school programs at Army centers. These volunteer activities are the foundation for almost every Salvation Army service across the country.

It is because of these generous individ­uals that hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children are supported in their time of need in little towns and big cities. Volunteers all, and precious treasures to The Salvation Army.

But, as the world has changed, so have the initiatives of the Army. The modern–day labor and sexual trafficking of boys and girls around the world, migration of people out of war–torn countries, and disease and poverty in developing countries are all daily concerns of The Salvation Army in the 21st century.

Emergency disaster services

EDS remains at the forefront of services provided by both Salvation Army staff and a corps of volunteers. In 2001, with the attacks of 9/11 in New York and Washington, over a period of six months as many as 3.2 million meals were served; 39,000 staff, volunteers, and Salvation Army ministers aided those in distress; and more than 1 million volunteer hours were given—1 million!

This is where my EDS journey began. I worked for The Salvation Army at the time, and when I heard the news, I put every bit of training I received into action. I called officials, coordinated with other nonprof­its, requested volunteers to serve, found vehicles and storage areas, updated the media, and prepared for an incredible influx of goods, funds, and services—all within 24 hours of such an incomprehensible event.

There wasn’t time to think about the devastation; there was only time to be prepared to serve.

Then it all came to a halt. We were in Connecticut, but there were no victims to be taken from New York to Connecticut hospitals. There were no emergency responders to feed. The roads to New York were shut down until they could grapple with what happened and how to make the city safe and account for the unaccountable. We took our own step back to reassess the situation and what our response would now be. We waited to find out how we could serve the place, the people, and the New York community that was confused, anxious, and angry.

In the meantime, we would provide what was needed to the people who were left behind, to the Connecticut residents whose family members were taken from them in such a horrific fashion. When New York needed us, we would be there. For now, this had become a local, more sensitive, more intimate connection under stressful circumstances.

Emotional and spiritual care

It’s then that another set of trained volun­ teers came into play. With support from therapists and social workers, Army staff and volunteers sat with and assessed the needs of families whose grieving had just begun.

Since then, major disasters to which the Army and its volunteers have responded include the Indian Ocean earthquake in 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008, the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, Superstorm Sandy, the Virginia Tech shootings, the Minnesota bridge collapse, Southern California wild­fires, Midwest floods, hurricanes in Puerto Rico, the influx of migrants fleeing the war in Ukraine, devastation in your state, fires in your town. It happens everywhere—the need is everywhere.

We are reminded of the Scripture, 2 Thessalonians 3:13, “And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.”

The Army is a unique organization, to be sure. Most people don’t know that the Army is also a church, the same one William Booth began in London. It has regular services on Sundays, programs for everyone in the family, a local pastor (usually with a title like “captain”) who cares for the people of his or her congrega­tion (yes, women are ordained ministers) and reflects the needs of the community. From small towns like Dover, N.J., to large cities like Pittsburgh, Pa., you’ll find The Salvation Army.

Quality at a reasonable price

There are the iconic thrift stores where you can purchase discounted clothing, furni­ture, and household goods, and you may see the large white trucks, which pick up donations, with “Doing the Most Good” written on their side. This retail store income supports Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Centers (ARCs) where men and women can find a new life, career help, and relief from the challenges of alcohol­ ism, drug addiction, and imprisonment.

Volunteers also serve in all these activities. As mentioned before, advisory board volunteers help guide, seek fund­ing, and determine property matters of each program location and for the Army church. Members of the church may be trained musicians or teachers and provide music lessons to children for free. They support after–school programs, visit nurs­ing homes, and ring the bell at Christmas­ time. Children also have opportunities to volunteer, especially at nursing homes where their happy little faces bring a lot of joy to our seniors.

Social services assistance

Each Salvation Army location assists with overdue utility bills, food vouchers to the local grocery store, and other emergency needs. Every state or region has a summer camping program for children, offered free of charge, and often a summer respite camp for senior citizens. Many local centers have a senior citizen program or a Boys and Girls Club located within its building. Salvation Army centers reflect the needs of a particu­lar community. Volunteer leadership, support, and feedback help to make this happen as Army ministers are often moved, thus making the volunteers a critical cog in an ever–changing environment.

In even smaller towns, where there usually isn’t a physical Salvation Army building, small groups of volunteers called service units play a critical role in provid­ing for local needs. With the guidance of Salvation Army staff, training is delivered in human services, fundraising, promotion, and fiscal responsibility.

I’ve worked with a fire chief in one town who served as the chairperson of the local service unit, and in another town the lead was taken by the town’s social services director. Each used their experience, influ­ence, and knowledge of their community to provide Army services for the betterment of their neighbors.

Karen, the social services director, says, “We find out so much more about those in need in our community through the Army’s outreach. Some people are hesitant to ask the government for help, especially immi­grants, but they feel comfortable asking a church. When they find out that I also represent the town in which they live, they relax and can tell their story to someone who can offer other ways to support them.”

Training volunteers for service

Volunteers, whatever their task, are trained first and foremost to serve others with kindness and without discrimination. Training may be a day (for kettle work­ ers) or a week or more for local disaster response, or it can mean months of train­ing and on–site activities for larger natural and human–caused disasters. It all depends on the volunteers, their ability to serve, and their desire to learn.

All volunteers are asked to go through a background check in order to protect the volunteers, who they serve, and the orga­nization. Volunteers are often responsible for funds collected at the red kettle, trans­porting children after activities, and visit­ing senior citizens. So, you can imagine the importance of protecting everyone.

I’ve found, after years of being connected to the Army, arts organizations, and other nonprofits, that volunteer service is conta­gious. I live in New Jersey and volunteer at a local Army church in Montclair. Decorating the center at Christmastime, working on an arts fundraiser, and providing warm coats to the drop–in center for the homeless are just part of my service. My brother lives in Florida and drives the van that takes Christmas kettle workers to their sites for the day. Then he brings them safely home. My daughter lives in Connecticut and brings warm meals to senior citizens in her town and works with teen girls in their after–school program.

Volunteers are not new to the world. Sometime, somewhere, someone was needed to pick up and take care of a situa­tion, a need, or a person. The results may be different, the language may not be famil­iar to us, but the outcome is the same. Someone’s life was changed. That’s the reward. Do good. Do the most good.

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